There is nothing more controversial in the Paleo universe than Paleo sweeteners… Well, I take that back, because there are actually many things that experts, dieticians, food nerds and amateurs all disagree about in Paleo (including the validity of the Paleo diet itself). Paleo is full of controversies.
I don’t intend to fuel any fires with this post. Nor do I want to get into any of the politics of Paleo definitions. After being involved in Paleo for several years now, I know what a bottomless pit this all becomes.
What follows is just a very basic list of Paleo sweeteners that I typically use when a recipe requires an additional sweetener. I will try to explain a purpose for each Paleo sweetener listed and provide personal pros and cons of each. Here goes:
Honey is hands-down my favorite natural sweetener. It has a fairly neutral flavor when replacing sugar in many recipes. Honey is possibly the most energy dense food in nature and there are many more things science is learning about the benefits of honey all the time.
Always try to find local, unprocessed, wildflower honey. Keep in mind that raw honey does pose some health risks for some people along with some possible benefits from local pollens and antioxidants.
When I am unable to source local honey (very rarely where I live), I will buy Honey Stinger Organic Wildflower Honey. There are probably other good honey products out there, but Honey Stinger has always been clean and consistent for me. It also comes in a great bottle for easier use than most local honey.
Sweeter and thinner than honey, agave nectar comes in a variety of grades from light to dark amber (similar to maple syrup). Yes, agave is the same plant used for making tequila. For those who don’t know, distilling spirits relies on the breakdown of sugars. Organic bases (mash) with high sugar content make for easy alcohol production.
Agave nectar is sweeter than cane sugar with about the same number of calories. The good news is that you may use less agave nectar to get the equivalent sweetness of sugar and it typically has a lower glycemic index and glycemic load as well. A downside to keep in mind is that some agave species used to make agave nectar contain steroids with contraceptive effects that could lead to miscarriage. Pregnant women or women trying to conceive may want to avoid it.
I can’t hear the word Stevia without thinking about the funny story of extreme Stevia abuse that Tim Ferriss tells in his book, The 4-Hour Workweek. If you want to know how not to make a dessert with Stevia (and more about minimalist living and lifestyle design) I recommend checking out Ferriss’ books: The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman and The 4-Hour Workweek, Expanded and Updated: Expanded and Updated, With Over 100 New Pages of Cutting-Edge Content.
Anyway. Stevia is a plant based extract. It is 300 times sweeter than sugar and has no calories. You need very little Stevia to add sweetness. On the downside, it tends to have a strange aftertaste and it’s also a very new product (well it’s been around for years but the heavy mass marketing of it is new). If it has any major negative medical drawbacks, they are still pretty much unknown.
I traveled to China a few years ago and you could buy sugar cane stalks on the street to chew on. That’s as raw as it gets and I think it’s a great flavor. Raw sugar cane contains the molasses normally extracted to produce white table sugar. So expect that molasses flavor similar to brown sugar. Treat it like processed sugar measure for measure and note that it contains the same calories and poses the same health risks like tooth decay and blood sugar spikes.
In A Nutshell
I have a cookie recipe that I plan to make two ways. One with maple syrup and one with agave nectar. This will be kind of a head to head comparison of two natural sweeteners. I’ll post the results when I am done. Stay tuned.
Stevia Plant Photo: Irene Knightley